On being invisible

Do I only feel invisible, or am I actually not there?

I injured my knee recently and had to spend a couple of weeks on crutches. In order to get to a meeting a short flight away, I needed to arrange assistance. I learned such a lot from this experience. I have nothing but praise for the professionals who helped me on and off various modes of transport – they were cheerful, caring, attentive and thoughtful.

I didn’t feel quite the same way about the general public.

People looked over the top of the wheelchair, stood right in the way of the mobility buggy chatting away on their mobile phones, nipped into seats before I could limp there –  and even butted right into the middle of a conversation I was having with the person assisting me. I have never felt so unseen. There would be lots to say here about navigating a world designed for the fully mobile, but this is a blog about language.

Many of the women in my research project described episodes or moments of feeling unseen. Not all the time of course, but an important enough issue to raise nonetheless. (And just to be clear here… I am not saying men don’t also experience episodes of feeling invisible; only that there were no men in my sample.)

Juliana, a marketing manager in a global manufacturer said, “I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure it’s because of my experience or because I am not able to get ideas through”.

And Anna went further, “The plant’s CEO was presenting and senior management present jumped in whenever they had a question. I tried to do the same but my voice was too soft. Perhaps the way I put my questions seemed rather hesitating as if I was not sure if the question was legitimate or ridiculous.”

Do these women only feel invisible, or are they in someway actually not seen?

What I am finding in my research is that reflective accounts of how meetings are experienced, bear little or no resemblance to what it has actually been possible to analyse in the transcripts of such meetings. Invisibility is hard to spot, of course.

Let me give just a few examples to illustrate my point. In four 30 minute episodes of recorded, natural talk at work – a brainstorm, an routine management meeting, an action planning session and an international conference call – on average, just under half of the people present in the room or on the call, are visible in the transcript.

Here’s one example. The first table gives a snapshot of who is doing the talking overall in an international conference call I have been analysing. [NB. lines and are number of transcribed lines on the page and turns represent each new speaker].

Team members Lines % Turns %
Business unit director

31.90%

28.28%

Team 1 (4 engineers)

42.05%

40.70%

Team 2 (6 supplier interface)

22.58%

24.81%

Unidentified or inaudible

3.47%

6.21%

The engineers hold the floor, followed closely by the person in chair, and the supplier interface bring up the rear both in terms of the length of time they were speaking and the number of times they got a turn to speak. This is the pattern that the director recalled after the call – it felt more or less right – and it is a pattern she would like to change.

And look at the picture when we can see exactly who is speaking and for how long. What is made visible here is that in fact, the director and the leader of team 1 were occupying over half of the time and space in this meeting. [F = female, M = male]

Participant Total lines > 1 Total lines < 1 As a % of total [1050 lines] Total turns As a % of total [403 turns]
Director (F)

260

75

31.90

114

28.28

Leader 1 (F)

209

58

25.24

94

23.33

Team 1 (F)

110.5

27

13.10

55

13.65

Leader 2 (F)

88.5

28

11.10

44

10.92

Team 2 (F)

46.5

7

5.10

14

3.47

Team 2 (M)

19.5

20

3.76

26

6.45

Team 1 (M)

20.5

6

2.52

10

2.48

Team 2 (F)

9.5

5

1.38

9

2.23

Team 1 (M)

11.5

1

1.19

5

1.24

Team 2 (M)

8

3

1.05

6

1.49

Team 2 (F)

2

0

0.19

1

0.25

That may be a good thing, of course depending on the people, the task, the constraints and a whole host of other conditions. The meaning is always contextual and it is impossible generalise from a snapshot – but it certainly raises some interesting questions. It would appear that in my samples, more than half of those invited to meetings – presumably because they can contribute in some way – are not heard either because they say less than others, or nothing at all. In this particular sample, as you can see from the table, this dynamic is not directly related to gender. On this occasion, of the seven lowest contributors, four were men and all originated from countries outside Western Europe and North America.

In these samples who gets seen and heard is of course, patterned by gender, culture, expertise, hierarchical position and power. But here’s the thing – my experience of travelling in a wheelchair forced me to see an aspect of the world that I had previously known but that was in someway invisible to me – the fact that the world is structured for the fully mobile. If you are not this ‘fully mobile ideal person’, you exist on a different plane – one where, to all intents and purposes, you are invisible to those who move about without assistance.

The examples of analysis of talk at work suggest that there is a conversational equivalent. People see others, hear ideas, notice and take account of the conversational behaviour of people who more or less fit within their implicit ideas of how meetings work. Others, who “choose” to remain silent, are unseen, unheard and structurally invisible.

Simply put, our routine interactions tend to recycle sameness – and this is bad news for diversity and inclusion.

My point here is not that silence is powerless – silence can be powerful in all sorts of ways. I’m drawing attention to the enormous weight of conversational norms. I hadn’t been able to see that my everyday attitude to moving about in the world was part of a powerful and exclusionary norm until I wasn’t inside it any more.

When the women in the research describe being invisible, it is usually when they reflect upon their identities as women, noting as they do so, that this doesn’t sit comfortably with their identities as managers and leaders. They find themselves in a situation, as I did during my travel assistance, where they are made suddenly and acutely aware of their difference to the norm.

And if things weren’t already complicated enough, this is because the (masculine, Anglo Saxon, English speaking) norm favoured by the business world, is itself usually “invisible”.

But for the sake of “diversity and inclusion” let’s at least talk about it.

 

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Leading a balanced conversation

“It’s only a simple brainstorm – it isn’t a power thing – everyone gets to speak.”

Do they?

The Dynamics of Difference participants think otherwise.

Imagine the scene. You’ve gathered your team together to inject some energy into your initiative.  You run a multi-national team, most of your meetings are virtual so it’s important to make the best of being in the same room together.

Let’s make the best of this opportunity,” you say. “I’d like us to share our thoughts about really getting some energy behind this initiative. So, what do you all think? Let’s share some ideas. I’ll capture them; go ahead.

A speaks for her department’s pet plan

B spots this, answers her and (very subtly) disagrees

A counters – the subtle disagreement was so not very subtle after all

B draws breath…

You “Thank you. Let’s have some different ideas.”

A ten second silence which feels like half an hour

You “What’s your take on this C?”

C speaks quietly about a third position

A counters

B counters A

A disagrees

You intervene…

And so it goes on. Participants D to G [from southern Europe] eventually get a word in, but participants H to J [from Pacific rim countries] don’t say anything.

This is not only a question of native speaker fluency and communicative competence (although that matters, of course), it is also about what we consider to be normal and unremarkable about the way we converse, or hold a meeting, or do a quick brainstorm of ideas. We tend to see these mechanisms as completely transparent and value free. This is because we take the norms for granted

Let’s take an example.

Everyone knows how to do a brainstorm. It is intended as a participative way of leading a meeting in which it is possible to make more space for more people to speak out and have their ideas heard. Indeed, most of us would be able to take up the pen and would know when the rules are not being followed.

Here’s how it usually works:

  • Someone takes the pen and invites others to offer up ideas freely (no judgement or argument allowed);
  • All the ideas are of equal value – the aim is to get the ideas flowing;
  • When everyone has said what they would like to say, everyone in the group makes sense of what is recorded.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, having everyone make sense of what has been recorded is not so straight forward. This is because in fact, the rules don’t guarantee that everyone is heard in equal measure or interpreted in the same way. Some people are given (or take) more turns than others; and some do not make their voices heard at all.

We observe these patterns of interaction and assign possible meanings to them. It can be inferred, for example, that someone who does not speak has nothing to say; or it may be assumed that members of the group do not want to hear what they imagine she has to say – or any number of other social meanings that can be assigned to this pattern.

Similarly, a brainstorm participant who dominates the conversational floor by taking every opportunity to speak may be read as a strong leader, a domineering team member, or a native speaker of English, depending on a whole range of contextual factors including the perspectives, interests and political agendas of everyone else involved.

In fact, your average brainstorm can turn out to be a conversation where the person with the pen holds the power to decide who gets to speak. The same old loud voices get heard, and the record of what was said is skewed in favour of one or other department, one or other point of view. People shout out their ideas and perspectives from the point of view of their individual and group interests – and then jockey for position in the overall “product” of the brainstorm – because we all know that the record counts.

So what if the record was more inclusive? How might we do that? Bearing in mind that absolutely nothing is value free, we might imagine different rules with different effects.

Imagine, for example, that after generating a board full of ideas you ask, “OK, so I’d like to invite the different groups here (marketing, sales, finance, engineering…or whatever) to choose five of these ideas on behalf of the whole group – the things that matter most to everyone here.”

You’d probably witness another of those silences that seems like half an hour.

People are not accustomed to being asked to articulate what might be in the interests of other groups. More frequently we imagine the question of what is in the interests of the whole group to mean just my group. The fact that most groups can’t do this exercise is because they don’t actually know what the other groups see as priority issues.

So what needs to happen next?

People need to ask each other a limited number of very carefully crafted questions. If, when the groups call out their priorities (after having listened very carefully to what the others have to say), you choose to circle the important priorities of each group in a different colour of marker pen, you will see where the groups’ interests diverge and overlap.

That’s actually the common ground – a place we often can’t see because the accepted, unchallenged patterns of conversation obscure our view. And unless we call these out, the exclusionary processes and effects that go with them, will also remain invisible.

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Do women speak differently?

It is time for me to grasp the nettle.

When I am asked if women speak differently from men, I often have the uneasy feeling that I am dodging the question. “Well, yes and no,” I usually begin before I edge my way into an answer that people don’t seem to want to hear.

Before I do that here, let’s look at some of the big, popular ideas about how men and women use language:

First, there are significant differences in the way men and women use language;

Second, men’s style of communication is more competitive (men are interested in status) and women’s style is more collaborative (they’re interested in relationships);

And these differences cause problems of miscommunication which, if we knew more about each other’s ways of communicating, we could fix.

Let’s take a closer look at how this argument works. Girls and boys tend to play in own sex groups and are thus socialised into different ways of conducting their conversations. Put simply, boys jostle for position and get used to challenging and being challenged, whereas girls, in their talking type of play, learn a more co-operative style.

These style preferences impact their relative success at work. So for example, a young women working in a competitive business environment hasn’t learned to defend herself against the inevitable status challenges. She interprets them as put downs and goes quiet. But for a young man this is second nature. His difficulty is in picking up the signals that someone around the table is being excluded. He interprets her silence as a sign of weakness.

Obviously, I am exaggerating here to show the extremes, something any sensible person who has been in conversations daily for 20 years (or more) would instantly recognise. Not all women are wimps just as not all men are Neanderthals. Nevertheless, the discussions on this topic at English and Power workshops and events, suggest that people are divided on the issue.

Intuitively, it rings true that women and men have different speaking styles as Marianne, a senior manager in global telecoms explains,

Do women prefer a different style? Absolutely, they do. In my experience women rarely go for an aggressive or boasting style. They prefer a more open way of interacting. But the way we speak in our company isn’t as cooperative as I would like it to be. For example no one has any doubts – or at least nobody can show they have any doubts. No one even asks any questions. Everything has to be seen to be clear. So I have to be clear – I can’t express any doubts even if I have questions because I don’t want to appear stupid.”

At the same time, when people get the chance to compare notes and discuss the issue in more depth, most come to the view that speaking styles are not so clearly divided into male and female speakers.

In fact, when I read out a random sentence, one I overheard in a Brussels cafe:

Well, I wouldn’t really call myself an expert, I just Google it and see what comes up.”,

people often become aware of their “first” impression, something along the lines of,

I think it must be a women because they are doing themselves down and weakening what they say by using ‘just’.”

But by talking in groups about what they really think, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t possible to tell. So people get a glimpse of their own stereotypes doing the talking, and they come face to face with the possibility that they themselves contribute to keeping these stereotypes alive – something they most definitely do not want to do as we can see from Ingrid’s reflections on the matter:

“I wish people wouldn’t keep insisting that women speak differently. We should be talking about the work, not the women. My boss is a woman and she is really aggressive. She competes with everyone and takes every opportunity to keep me quiet or even put me down. She’s new, and maybe she’s insecure but it shouldn’t interfere with the project. On conference calls she competes with the others, particularly one of the senior guys – they try to outdo each other all the time – and the goal of the exercise gets diluted in the midst of it.”

Intuitively then, some people believe that the stereotypes describe their own conversational behaviour, and some people don’t.

But what is the research evidence*?

It is unequivocal. Professional women and men use a whole range of different conversational styles influenced by a great many contextual factors, as the case of the young American man in the Brussels cafe confirms. Both women and men employ a rich variety of language features and are well able to use language resources flexibly and with precision.

So no, women are not more indirect than men, men are indirect too; women don’t use tag questions because they are unsure of themselves, they often use them to encourage people to participate, and so do men; men don’t do the lion’s share of the interrupting, and interrupting isn’t all about closing people down, sometimes people interrupt in support, and both women and men do this.

Time and time again the myths about gender and language have been questioned, contested and shown to be just that – myths. The evidence from serious linguistic research from a range of different research perspectives simply does not support the view that men and women speak different languages. But myths are an important source of practical knowledge and we believe them because they seem to be true, and because they are everywhere – particularly in training, coaching and sound-bite science.

Such beliefs influence our behaviour and shape our stereotypes – including our stereotypes of our conversational styles. Challenging and changing these stereotypes isn’t a job for one person.

It isn’t the women who need fixing because they apologise all the time and weaken everything they say by dropping “just” into every sentence; and it isn’t men who need fixing because they take up all the conversational space with their explaining and interrupting – in spite of the often rather funny stories circulating on the basis of these stereotypes. But they are just that – stereotypes. In real, everyday workplace conversations women explain and men say “just”; and women and men do a whole range of other things too.

We can’t really expect to challenge gender stereotypes if our approaches to fixing the problem are unwittingly reinforcing the very stereotypes we want to challenge. We will just end up going round in circles. So let’s not do that.

 

* For an excellent summary written for an audience of non-linguists, I can recommend Deborah Cameron’s (2007) book, The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Are you visible enough?

Without a doubt, if you attend meeting after meeting and always end up with the impression that you are neither seen nor heard, then its easy to conclude that that you need to learn to be more forceful, more visible. And if you spend a great deal of your time leading meetings in which some people fail to engage or refuse to speak out, it’s easy to conclude that the fault lies with them. After all, they also believe that the fault lies with them.

Take Lorena, an experienced marketing manager for a global manufacturing company. She reflects:

“I feel that because I do not have seniority, my comments are not welcome. I feel like I lack influence – and I’m not sure if it’s because of my experience or because I’m not able to get my ideas through. I used to be extroverted and outgoing – but I am trying to change that. I want to be different – to speak less – to get my ideas through, but … I never really know when I’m taking too much or not enough!”

Lorena believes that she is the one with the problem.

Interactional difficulties are experienced individually, so we shouldn’t be too surprised if solutions to such problems are aimed at individuals too. And of course there is nothing wrong with working on empowering oneself to make more or better contributions – people need to feel that they have the power to make a change which will allow them to have more influence, be a better manager, take up the power of their role more effectively.

But there is a trap in this sort of thinking. It smooths over the contradictions of how people actually experience power (or the lack of it) in their workplace conversations. It over-simplifies the causes and the solutions, and robs teams of difference – different perspectives, different values and different ways of addressing problems and finding solutions.

As part of the Dynamics of Difference research I have spent a long time reading and re-reading the written reflections of the sixty professional women participants whose struggles to understand their own contradictory relationship with visibility and power, point to the need for a more nuanced understanding of the perennial challenge of getting heard in meetings.

So let’s take a closer look at the contradictions of visibility and power.

First there is good visibility. You see yourself as relatively powerless – perhaps because your English is not so good, or because you are a woman in male dominated firm, or because you are from the European south and not its powerful north – or a whole host of other reasons that mean it seems harder for you to make your mark. You are invisible. In this case invisibility equals powerlessness; visibility brings you power. Joana reflects:

“The environment is highly competitive and the interactions are important for all of the professionals in the meetings. I need to give visibility to the successes and challenges of my teams – and to increase my own profile so senior managers are aware of my achievements. But I sometimes feel that I cannot contribute to the conversation or be taken seriously enough because of the way I speak. I often struggle to be heard.

Then there is bad visibility. You are different (your age, race, gender, culture, sexuality, nationality) and being different makes you stand out from the norm. But you don’t want to stand out because that weakens your power. You have to be seen as one of them in order to make your mark. You are too visible. In this case visibility equals powerlessness; invisibility brings you power. Teresa says:

“It is difficult to be seen as senior as I am. I don’t mind making mistakes, but I don’t like it to look like I don’t have enough knowledge when really, it’s just a language problem. The main question is about expressing myself with enough seniority among peers who are mainly all native speakers. Getting the language wrong means they start treating you differently, like they think you aren’t up to it, or they don’t fully trust you.”

Both perceptions are present in my data, in fact both are present in the same person, and even in the same breath.

Pamela knows she’s young to have reached a relatively high position in her lawn firm. She also knows it’s because her clients are very happy with her work, and on a one-to-one basis she has no problem getting her ideas across and holding her ground. In meetings with senior partners though, she sometimes can’t break through. She explains:

“In meetings, knowing when to speak to generate good impact can be a problem. I am 31 years old, and I might even look a little younger, so sometimes I have the feeling that the older professionals don’t take me as seriously as they should. Recently I was at the negotiating table with a partner from our firm, but the way the counterpart spoke back made me think that he wasn’t taking me seriously. He only wanted to address his remarks to the partner from our firm, and never directly to me. He didn’t even look at me.”

She felt invisible and yet she reflects:

“I want to sound like them – to sound more serious – to be taken more seriously”

What Pamela wants is to blend right in, to become “one of them”, and the way she sees she can do this most effectively is by altering the way she interacts. She wants to be seen and to be invisible.

This is odd, is it not?  Surely we can untangle what’s good and what’s bad. But Pamela’s experience is not unique – many feel this contradiction. They experience good and bad visibility, power and powerlessness, hand in hand, both at once. And because there isn’t a ready way to make sense of such tensions and contradictions, the cocktail of good and bad visibility gets mixed up in conversations and mixed up in your mind. Then, instead of opening the issues up and talking about them with others, we account for our individual experiences and feelings with self-criticism and off the shelf self-help explanations.

But when we focus too hard on personal weaknesses and individual solutions, we overlook the more structural aspects of experience, and in particular, the incredible power of the conversational norm. Our workplace conversations follow predictable and fairly stable patterns which conceal the norms and values within them. These norms can over-ride our surface awareness of fairness and inclusivity precisely because we take conversational patterns so much for granted (it’s how you “do” a brainstorm, or a case review or a board meeting or whatever) and because of this, the exclusionary processes and effects also remain invisible.

So what does this have to do with being visible, powerful and effective at work?

It reminds us that changing practice is a collective effort. This is not to say that we should give up trying to figure out how our own thinking and behaviour is both part of the problem and the solution. Everyone can work on themselves, of course. But that can’t be the end of it – because the thing about conversations is that there is always more than one person involved.

Picture a whirlpool of conversational practices. The norm has a very powerful pull.

So if we really want to make our professional conversations more inclusive, we have to tackle the whirlpool. If we don’t, we will end up talking about the value of difference, but doing it in a way which values sameness.

 

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

Doing inclusive leadership

What is inclusive leadership? What do you actually need to do?

It is becoming commonplace to see “Inclusive Leadership” among the behaviours and values expected of corporate leaders and managers. But what does it mean exactly?

Recently I have started to ask.

In my research and my work I frequently ask groups what they think makes a good manager. It’s a question that usually sparks a lively debate; and if people are stuck for ideas, I just ask what a bad manager does. That’s a conversation that’s hard to bring to a close.

But if I ask about what an inclusive leader does, people get tongue tied. The buzz dies down and more often than not they just look at each other, nonplussed.

Companies (and the people in them of course) are struggling to translate the idea of “inclusive leadership” into everyday behaviour. It promises something positive, open and inclusive but it seems that no one knows what you actually need to do.

Findings of the Dynamics of Difference research project suggest that being an “inclusive leader” has more to do with being aware of habits that exclude than it has to do with adding “inclusion” to a repertoire of skills. Far more influential is the ability to raise awareness of behaviours and habits which unwittingly cause exclusion: habits of thinking, habits of language and habits of interaction.

Let’s look briefly at each, before I describe a conversation tool to try out at your next inclusive leadership opportunity.

Habits of thinking: These are the subconscious preferences and the unconscious bias which draw us towards people like us and makes us wary, or even suspicious of difference. Many companies have implemented or are in the process of rolling out comprehensive programmes aimed at raising awareness of the unconscious bias in our thinking.

You might for example, raise the question of bias in a meeting where you are leading a discussion with your team about possible hires. Are you failing to employ people who are not like you? Are you sure the team is open to difference? Of course, a leader who does this aims to be inclusive –  but that isn’t all…

Habits of language: The commonplace ways of expressing our ideas and actions can carry messages which reinforce the very ideas we aim to discard. Language constrains our thinking – an unconscious linguistic bias which in and of itself can become an obstacle to realising the change we aspire to.

Now our inclusive leader needs to be vigilant that the words she is using to communicate important messages don’t undermine her goals. What are the right terms to use? Can she speak about wanting more “women leaders” when she never writes about “men leaders”? Should she start talking about male and female leaders? Or just leaders?

Habits of language lead to habits of thinking – and vice versa, of course. But what comes next matters most.

How does everyone in the recruitment meeting interact? Does the leader ever interrupt? Does she talk over someone else who is trying to make a different point? Is the subtlety of that different point given conversation room? Just because the meeting is about diversity, doesn’t make the interaction inclusive. In fact, a more co-operative approach to leadership can sometimes make the subtleties of exclusion even harder to spot.

Habits of interaction are the core of the Dynamics of Difference project. Micro moves of conversation played out in interruptions, turns, hesitations, and silences are the raw material of power dynamics in action. In subtle and complex ways, these moves influence how decisions are made and how work gets done.

So let’s turn to the application of Linguistics to see through the surface talk to the mechanisms beneath so as to identify the moves and patterns which hinder our progress. By making small shifts we can make our working conversations more effective and more inclusive.

Let’s try shifting competitive talk for cooperative conversation.

The usual pattern of competitive talk has everyone working on the assumption that the more they talk, the more space and power they will have. To stay in the game, you should make sure that the other people speak less – particularly if you happen to know that another person has a different point of view. The more you speak the more influence you will have, right?

Controlling the topic means you can control what gets on the agenda. And controlling the agenda means you control the action. But it also means you probably didn’t hear any radically different perspectives – or even minimally different perspectives. You can’t hear what wasn’t said.

Now lay your hands on some counters, bricks or other markers and give each person two. These bricks represent topics. Whenever a person introduces a new topic, they must put one of their bricks into the centre. If you work on the competitive talk premise, the conversation will very soon run out of steam because everyone only has two topics. But in this cooperative conversation we get to turn that on its head. If one person has put both their bricks into the centre, one of the others can choose to give them one of their own bricks for which, in return, they take two from the centre. So, the act of giving away space, actually brings more space, and in fact just as much influence.

Thinking, language and interaction mutually reinforce each other and a change in interaction can bring about new thinking by taking our habits by surprise.

Try it.

Until we put inclusivity into practice in our interactions, “inclusive leadership” doesn’t mean a thing.

Inclusive meetings

We need people to disagree, to push back, to speak out…don’t we?

Diverse teams make sense; of course they do. They bring together people with very different experiences, ideas and perspectives and so (in theory at least) harness the power of diversity of thought. Most managers also know (in theory at least) how to get the best from their diverse teams – they should listen well, balance contributions, invite challenge, encourage questions – the lessons of Management 101.

So why is meeting behaviour like this so rare?

As leaders and participants of many such meetings, the women of the Dynamics of Difference research gave no holes barred accounts of the massive gulf between the many commonly accepted leadership formulae for making meetings work, and their day-to-day experiences around the meeting table or on a conference call.

Let’s put aspiration side by side with the realities they describe:

The aspiration: a level playing where everyone makes an equal (and relevant) contribution. The reality: a slightly strained and uneasy atmosphere tinged with distrust.

The aspiration: openness, flexibility and appreciation of diverse perspectives. The reality: impatience and irritation with the contribution styles of anyone not schooled in the norms of Anglo-American meeting dynamics.

The aspiration: well balanced speaking and listening from everyone at the table. The reality: two or three participants do most of the speaking (and all of the challenging) becoming more visible, noticed, promoted. The rest say nothing.

As often as not such meeting dynamics migrate to the poles. At one side there is the lively debate and discussion of two or three participants (while the rest watch), and at the other is the slow, dull drawn out contributions which feels more like pulling teeth than exchanging views – the first an exercise in exclusion, the second an inclusive soggy compromise.

Can we not have meetings which are inclusive and interesting? Diversity is not dull – so why are these dynamics so hard to shift?

One answer lies in our misplaced faith that all the moves in our conversational behaviour are intentional; that as individuals we are completely in control of our contributions. In fact, many of our interactions are down to conversational routines which in subtle but solid ways, shape and constrain what we can say, and how and when we can say it.

Ana, an experienced management consultant from Spain puts it this way, “The meetings are all very similar. Usually the lead is taken by the main managers who are used to working with one another and the interaction between them has been built up over many meetings. In these cases it is very difficult to participate, even to share an opinion or ask anything. In my experience most management teams are like this. They know each other well and they interact in a way which doesn’t invite contribution. They are mostly men and they have certain patterns of talk. It seems as if they have an informal agreement on how to proceed. If you raise your hand to speak, everyone looks at you as if to say, “It’s not your place to speak’’ .

And this is no easier even if you are formally in charge. Glenda, who manages a long established global IT team admits she doesn’t know how to shift the dynamics of their interaction. In one two hour call connecting 12 people, Kitty from Hong Kong said a total of 10 words. And of course, there is nothing wrong with Kitty beyond following her own cultural conventions which govern speaking and respect. While the six team members who controlled 85% of the talk time are not deliberately dominating the discussion; they are simply filling the space. Meeting patterns are rather more rigid than we like to imagine; and we recognise, respond and reproduce such patterns because they guide us in ways of which we are only vaguely aware.

Where does this leave our diverse meeting?

We are back to “The firework display” (colourful, noisy explosions in an island of silence) and “The low grey sky” (everyone says their piece but it is dull and grey and boring). In both, the quality of thinking is not diverse – it’s diminished. Instead what we need is a glorious multi-hued sunset – but to get it, we need more push back, more challenge and better questions. And unfortunately it is it never enough to say, “Go ahead and challenge me.”

Instead we need to nudge the structure of the meeting, and not try to fix the people. To increase the push-back and challenge meeting participants need legitimacy. If you are leading the meeting, you have to take responsibility for tackling this legitimacy by making it tangible, visible and safe.

Try this out in your next face-to-face meeting. Lay your hands on some small building bricks, or counters, or paper clips – anything to hand that isn’t poisonous or sharp – and ask everyone to take three to use as questions, challenges or opinions. They get to choose. And whenever they want to, they simply play their “brick” and say:

I have a question” or

I’d like to challenge that” or

I have an opinion about that”.

Everyone gets to play all three…but no more.

This exercise requires courage. Pushing back is not easy. For women it evokes the double bind of judgement where behaviour deemed appropriate for being boldly present, is also culturally coded as masculine.  For people whose cultures equate challenge with disrespect, it is painfully difficult to be different. And for those who tend to dominate interaction, the respite can be very insightful.

Changing a pattern is a bold move for everyone. Small things make a big difference when it comes to conversation. It is very easy to lose your nerve or to get distracted by everything else that’s going on so that you lose sight of where you are going. When you have decided to push back, choose your moment, keep your eye on that thin line of horizon – and speak your mind.

Inclusive meetings are not for the fainthearted.

 

Image:  Fernando Oyón